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Introduction to Historical Theology - The Middle Ages and the Renaissance (c. 500-1500)

Historical Theology Articles

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The era of the “Cathedrals” of the mind.

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance (c. 500-1500)
Short Study: Arguments for the Existence of God
Short Study: Understanding the Atonement
Short Study: Discussion of the Sacraments
Short Study: The Interpretation of the Bible, and Renaissance Humanism, and themes in Late Medieval Scholastic Theology

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance (c. 500-1500)

Defining periods in history can be difficult. “Middle Ages”, “Renaissance,” and “modern period” are ambiguous terms. Middle Ages refers to the development of theology during the dark ages to the time of the Reformation. The term Renaissance refers to designate the literary and artistic revival in the fourteenth century. The period under consideration gives rise to two of the most important intellectual movements in the history of thought: scholasticism and humanism. An understanding of both of these movements demonstrates their intrical nature to the rise of the Reformation.

Scholasticism refers to “schoolman” such as Duns Scotus. Many humanists used this term as a negative connotation toward the Middle Ages in general. It is both pejorative and imprecise for a number of reasons, but the historical theologian cannot help but use it. It may be defined as the period between 1200-1500 which placed a hearty emphasis on the rational justification of religious beliefs, and the systematic presentation of those beliefs. Scholasticism, then, does not refer to a specific system of beliefs, but to a particular way of systematizing theological ideas. Types of scholasticism range from realism (where concepts actually have their foundation in the supernatural realm) to nominalism (which focuses in on the particulars, not the universal, nature of a thing). Two major schools emerged from these idea – Thomism (following Aquinas) and Scotism (following Duns Scotus).

The term via moderna (the modern way) is the best way of depicting nominalism for modern scholars. Among thinkers in this genre are William of Ockham, Pierre d’Ally, Robert Holcot, and Gabriel Biel. This ideology made many inroads to the European universities and tended to be Pelagian in nature. One of the strongholds of the modern way was the University of Oxford, but also its rebuttal is seen from men like Bradwardine. Bradwardine wrote a scathing attack against Oxford’s modern way entitled The Case of God Against Pelagius. Bradwardine’s ideas were later advanced by John Wickliffe and Gregory of Rimini. These men were more theologically sound and followed the schola Augustina moderna, or the modern school of Augustine’s writings.

Humanism also emerged later in the Middle Ages. Today this term means that which is secular, or that which is opposed to God, and the existence of God. In the time of the Renaissance this is not what it meant. Humanism seemed to be a reaction against scholasticism. They were enamored with the promotion of eloquence, but it also embraced a heterogeneous nature encompassing everything from Platonic views to Aristotelian. Humanism was essentially a cultural program, which appealed to classical antiquity as a model of eloquence. It was more concerned with how ideas were obtained and expressed rather than the actual substance of those ideas. This humanism affected various countries and key figures in those countries. For example, In Switzerland it affected Ulrich Zwingli, in France, John Calvin, and in England Robert Barnes at Oxford.

One of the most significant movements to emerge during the Middle Ages was Monasticism. It began in the remote areas of Egypt and eastern Syria. The primary ideology of this movement surrounded a withdrawal from the sinful and distracting world to abide within a given community together for the common spiritual good (common life = vita communis). Pachomius built an early monastery during 320-325. This monastery created a pattern by which other monasteries would later develop. Members agreed to submit themselves to a common life that was regulated by an Abbot who ruled over them. The physical structure of the monastery was more like a fortress than a home. By the fourth century these monasteries had been established in many locations in the Christian east, especially in Syria and Asia Minor. By the fifth century many of these communities had become established in Italy, Spain and Gaul. Augustine of Hippo established two monasteries in North Africa during 400-425. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-c. 500) established a monastery at Monte Cassino where the “Rule of Benedict” became common among the Benedictine communities. They emphasized a unconditional following to Christ, regular corporate and private prayer, and the reading of Scripture. These monasteries were centers for theological activity and are important to historical Christianity in the transmission and study of theology and biblical texts.

In Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, Brittany and Wales arose the Celtic Christians. One man who was set on evangelizing Ireland was named Magonus Sucatus Patricus, or as commonly known, “Patrick” (c. 390-460). He was born into a wealthy family, taken by bandits as a captive during a raiding party and sold into slavery in Ireland. Here he discovered the basics of the Christian faith, and then after being released from captivity six years later, desired to return to Ireland to evangelize the country.

In Ireland many monasteries arose that were centers of missionary activity. Men like Brandon (died c. 580) and Columba (died c. 597) evangelized the northern coasts of Scotland and the western city if Iona. Iona became an epicenter for missionary activity and further training for the mission field.

By 700 A.D. Celtic Christianity had stopped its growth and began to decline. This marks the dawn of a new age called the Middle Ages or the age of intellectual consolidation. By the eleventh century there was a significant social and political stability which emerged within this geographic area. The Byzantium kingdom which centered in the city of Constantinople (located in modern Turkey) was deeply rooted in the writings of the patristic fathers and would later serve as a hotbed for theological thought. Western Europe, in regions such as France, Germany and the Low Countries would dominate the epicenter of the Roman Church. The Caliphate, and Islamic region, continued to see the growth of the Islamic nation, but was finally halted by the Moors in Spain in the final decade of the fifteenth century and the defeat of the Islamic armies outside Vienna in 1523.

An event that was catastrophic for the history of the united church took place in 1054. It is called the “great schism.” Over the wording and theological ideas surrounding the filioque clause in the Nicene creed (that the Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son, and not just the Father) the Greek church broke away from the western Church. The Catholic Church (the one true church) and the Orthodox church (now claiming the right to being the one true church) broke apart and was never united again. As a matter of fact, the tension was so great at this time that there was little, if any, theological interaction from that time forward between the Western church and the Eastern theologians who broke away.

Once the Middle Ages emerged, there were key theologians and scholars who marked that era:

Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109) was born in Italy. He migrated to Normandy in 1059, entering the famous monastery of Bec, becoming its prior in 1063 and its abbot in 1078. In 1093 he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. He wrote the Proslogian, which purports the ontological argument for God. It demonstrates that the Christian Gospel is rational and can be shown to be rational.

Peter Abelard (c. 1079-1142) was a French theologian who achieved a considerable reputation as a teacher at the University of Paris. Among his many contributions to the development of medieval theology, his most noted is his emphasis upon the subjective aspects of the atonement.

High of St. Victor (died 11.42) was a theologian on Flemish or German origin who entered the Augustinian monastery of St. Victor in Paris around 1115. His most important work is de sacramentis Christianae fidei which means, On the sacrament of the Christian Faith. It shows the awareness of the new theological debates that were beginning to develop at this time.

Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74), known as the “dumb ox” for being portly, was born in Italy and studied at Cologne in 1248, returned to Paris in 1252 to study theology, and in 1266 wrote his Summa Theologica – one of the most widely known scholastic works during the Middle Ages. The work is divided into three parts: Part I deals chiefly with God the creator; Part II with the restoration of humanity to God; Part III with the manner in which the person and work of Christ bring about salvation on humanity.

Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308) was one of the finest minds of the day. He taught at Oxford and Paris, wrote three commentaries on the Sentences and is known as the “subtle doctor” because of his ability to define things precisely. He was a champion of the theory of knowledge associated with Aristotle, propagated voluntarianism (the view that the divine will took precedence over the divine intellect) and was a champion of the “doctrine” of the immaculate conception of Mary.

William of Ockham (c. 1285-1347) contributed to the Middle Ages in two ways – through the principle of parsimony and as a vigorous defender of nominalism. The principle of parsimony taught that the simplest answer is most likely, and so cut through a great amount of theological and philosophical hypotheses. Thus, universals were deemed unnecessary, demonstrating his “razor” or driving idea between what is important and what is not, fit conveniently into his nominalism.

Erasmus of Rotterdam (c. 1469-1536) is regarded as the most important humanist of the age. Though Erasmus was not a Protestant, he was greatly influential upon Protestantism in a number of ways. One of these was his translation of the Greek New Testament. Secondly, he was able to produce many of the scholarly patristic works, especially those of Augustine. He also wrote the Enchiridion, which became a bestseller, and began reforming echoes at Zurich and Wittenberg. In such influences it is said that Luther hatched the egg that Erasmus laid.

There were a number of key theological developments that took place within the framework of the Middle Ages. First, there was the consolidation of the Patristic Heritage. Peter Lombard’s Sentences was a compilation of patristic quotations, and was the most widely theological book read during the era. Secondly, the exploration of the role of reason in theology took a turn to systematize and expand what Christian theology was all about. Here one finds the theory of method emerging, and the term “apologetics” born. Thirdly, there was the increasing development of theological systems as a whole emerging. These were deemed by scholastics as “cathedrals of the mind.” Fourthly, sacramental theology also grew, as well as, fifthly, a theology of grace and the doctrine of grace returning to the teaching of Augustine, and ultimately the Bible. Sixthly, and very importantly, a return to the original sources had begun (ad fontes) in order to think and write critically on the source documents of a given text. Seventhly, there came about, as a result of the ad fontes trend, a critique of the Vulgate translation of the Bible (the Latin vulgate was a translation done of the Bible, and of the apocryphal books by Jerome, and used heavily by the Roman Church).

In the Eastern church two notations are of importance: 1) the controversy over images, or the iconoclastic controversy raged from 725-742. Emperor Leo III (c. 717-742) decided to destroy all images and icons because he thought they were barriers to the conversion of the Jews and of Muslims. Some theologians fought to return these images to help in a devotee’s faith (men like Gregory Palamas (c. 1296-1359). Others wanted the images destroyed believing it to be sacrilege to erase the Creator/creature distinction in that God could be “seen” and a violation of the 2nd commandment.

Short Study: Arguments for the Existence of God

The ontological argument is first seen and set out by Anselm’s Proslogian (1079). The term “ontological” is a philosophical designation for the notion of “being.” Anselm defines God as “that which no greater thing can be thought (aliquid quo maius cogtari non potest). If this definition is correct, Anselm argues, then this implies the existence of God. If the idea of God remained, and the reality is that He does not really exist, then that would pose a problem in understanding where “God” came from. If He does not exist, then that would contradict that the reality of God is greater than the idea of God. If God exists, then the reality behind that is that one could not think of anything greater than God, and the opposite would be self-contradictory (one could not think of something not as great and not have God exist). If this definition of God exists in the human mind, then the corresponding reality must also exist.

A Benedictine monk named Gaunilo attempted to make a response to Anselm. He wrote The Reply on Behalf of the Fool that says just because we have an idea of something, that does not necessitate the existence of it. If one were to have an idea of a dollar bill in their hands, or a thousand of them, that does not guarantee that reality corresponds to that thought.

Aquinas offered another angle on the proof for God’s existence. Aquinas said that if something exists, then something exists necessarily. He worked from the angle of necessary being in order to demonstrate the order and need for a Creator of the universe based on order. Since the cosmos is in motion, there must have been something that started that motion. Aquinas argued that everything is moved by something, except the first cause of the movement that is now in motion. Aquinas ultimately came up with five points that “proved” God’s existence: movement, causation, existence of contingent being, human values and teleological consideration. Duns Scotus and William of Ockham both offered rebuttals to these arguments by making the following points: why is infinite regression impossible?; Do these arguments actually lead one back to one God? These arguments do not demonstrate that God continues to exist.

Short Study: Understanding the Atonement

One of the theological points discussed during the Middle Ages was the “Harrowing of Hell.” The New Testament demonstrates a victory of Christ over the forces of darkens. The theme of “Christ the victor” (Christus Victor) brought together a series of themes, centering on the idea of a decisive victory over the forces of evil and demonic oppression. Some taught that Christ paid a ransom (coming out of Irenaeus teachings) and that this ransom was paid to the devil (which emerged from Origen’s teachings). Some thought that since 1 Peter 3:18-22 talked of spirits in prison, then Christ must have gone into hell to win the victory for them. Anselm, though, taught something quite different. He would not concede that the devil has rights over anyone, and that Christ never went to hell to fight with the devil. Instead, Anselm’s emphasis was the righteousness of God and the need for human redemption to gain that righteousness through the work of the cross. God created humanity who fell, Christ came to save them, and therefore Christ does this by His death on the cross. Aquinas believed this also but taught that the work of Christ was a satisfaction for those for which He came to die. The satisfaction offered by his humanity could be conceived as greater than the sin He was satisfying since the mode of forgiveness is the righteousness and goodness of God in the act.

Short Study: Discussion of the Sacraments

A sacrament is a sign. Signs, when applied to divine things, are called sacraments. The sign given must be in relation to the thing signified. If the sign did not bear some resemblance, then it meant nothing. High of St. Victor thought this kind of definition was inadequate, and resurrected the thoughts of Augustine on this issue. Sacraments are physical elements that are set before the external senses, representing a likeness, signifying a spiritual grace that is communicated by faith to the recipient.

A careful distinction was drawn at this time between the sacraments of the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the Old Testament the sacraments signified spiritual realities to come, where the New Testament actualized what was signified. Bonaventure makes this point when he says that the Old Testament was like ointment needed for a wound, but they did not heal. Christ had to come to bring spiritual anointing and healing in order for any of the Old Testament signs or sacraments to mean anything. Peter Lombard says a sacrament is a sign of the grace of God and a form of the invisible grace, so that it bears as its image and exists as its cause.

Short Study: The Interpretation of the Bible, and Renaissance Humanism, and themes in Late Medieval Scholastic Theology

The Middle Ages found it important to talk about how the Bible is translated and interpreted, not just that it is interpreted. It was during this era that the “Fourfold use of Scripture” came about – or Quadriga. There was the natural sense, the moral sense, the rational sense and the theological sense that a given passage may have. Ambrose of Milan focused on three of them excluding the natural sense. Augustine had followed a two-fold approach: literal and allegorical. The distinction was really between whether one interprets based on the literal historical sense, or whether one tries to read into the text what he thinks may be there. These two views or sets of views moved into the Middle Ages and the following came to be accepted: the literal sense teaches about deeds; the allegorical sense what to believe; the moral sense what to do; and the anagogical sense what to hope for. The important note to make here is that once these approaches were “set in stone” during the first part of the Middle Ages, scholarship began to take shape and the ad fontes sense (back to the sources) began to take hold. This allowed for a literal-historical sense to rule and the allegorical and other senses were pushed into the background by Renaissance Humanism.

Most of the time, the Renaissance theologian, when he referred to Scripture, meant the Latin Vulgate. But the ad fontes establishment of the need to go back to original sources proved invaluable for rejecting, to a great extent, the Latin Vulgate, and to restudy the original languages of Greek and Hebrew of the biblical text. The three languages these scholars were experts in were Greek, Hebrew and Latin. This way they could deal faithfully with the texts.

The Renaissance scholar also made strides in academia that aided the work to be done soon in the Reformation. One important aspect was the printed text. Erasmus’ Greek New Testament was an invaluable resource for study in this regard. The scholarly community also demonstrated the ability to be critical about using the best Greek texts of the Bible. And also, Erasmus pushed for the laity of the church to get a Bible and read it, for they held the key to the church as a whole. He believed the excitement of the apostolic era could be regained with the laity studying alongside of the clergy.

Certain developments continued to take shape during this time. Nominalism and Augustinianism were waging war. Covenant Theology was emerging and becoming defined where the via moderna was helping the scholastics formulate a covenant schematic based on some of the very same political ideas roaming about their time between kings and vassals. It would be this covenantal undertone that helped Martin Luther come to a covenantal understanding of the great doctrine of justification. Augustinianism was taking off with the theology of Bradwardine and Gregory of Rimini, later to be used by John Wickliffe.

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